Temba Bavuma needs to convert starts to break out of the funk

Temba Bavuma drives straight back down the wicket BCCI

Neat, nimble. Good to watch. Perhaps, aside from Quinton de Kock in the adjacent net, the best to watch among all the South Africa players batting side-by-side at the JSCA Stadium on Thursday.

They were all facing spin, on pitches they had themselves roughed up with their spikes, and Temba Bavuma was looking in no trouble at all. He was rocking back and pulling with a firm roll of the wrists. He was skipping down the track and clipping against the turn. He was defending with a compactness that wasn't just about his size. Precise footwork, no wasted movements, soft hands.

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He was looking, in short, like a natural player of spin.

He was facing Dane Piedt, Senuran Muthusamy, George Linde and a bunch of net bowlers, and none of them, obviously, were R Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja.

But Bavuma had looked much the same while facing the two India spinners in Pune four days earlier. His defence had looked unhurried and compact, and his shots were easy on the eye, particularly a couple of crackers off Jadeja: a dance down the pitch for a wristy chip over mid-off, and a pull for six from deep within his crease.

But having got to 38, he attempted a big drive away from his body and nicked Jadeja to first slip.

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On the evening before that innings, Bavuma had spoken with brutal honesty at a press conference. He perhaps didn't need to be that honest. He had made 18, 0 and 8 in his first three innings of the series, but he could have easily said, when asked about his form, that he had been out to a couple of unplayable balls. There was one from Mohammed Shami in South Africa's second innings in Visakhapatnam that had crept through at shin height and bowled him. There was one from Shami in the first innings in Pune that had spat up towards the shoulder of his bat from a similar length.

Bavuma didn't talk about all that. He said this instead: "I can honestly probably say, being critical of myself, that I'm giving my best but probably my best at this point in time is not good enough."

Bavuma was probably speaking not just about his series, but his overall record too. After 38 Tests, he averages 31.78, with 13 fifties and just the one hundred.

Plenty of batsmen have played a similar number of Tests to Bavuma and, like him, don't yet have the numbers to match their potential - Kusal Mendis, KL Rahul and Shai Hope, for instance. South Africa's own post-readmission history is littered with gifted batsmen who've underachieved for one reason or another, and averaged in the low-to-mid 30s: Jacques Rudolph, Neil McKenzie, Boeta Dippenaar, JP Duminy.

None of them have had to bear Bavuma's burden. They've largely been allowed to succeed or fail without anyone questioning their legitimacy as Test cricketers.

That's not the case for Bavuma. When he bats, he isn't just a South African batsman trying to make his way in international cricket. He's a black African batsman at a time when the national team has transformation targets to fulfill. He's the first black African to play for South Africa as a specialist batsman. He's also the vice-captain.

A vast number of South Africa fans want Bavuma to succeed, and some, no doubt, will see his failures as vindication of a wider point. Either way, it's an almost impossible amount of pressure to be under.

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What does Bavuma need to do to translate his potential into better Test-match numbers?

Quite obviously, as his conversion rate from 50s to 100s shows, he needs to build on his starts. He's played several important innings for South Africa so far, and the geographical spread of his fifties - Perth, Hobart, Dunedin, Wellington, Lord's, The Oval and the SSC, apart from the ones he's made at home - suggests he has the game to blunt good bowling in a variety of conditions and get himself in. That's usually reckoned to be the difficult part of batting, but for Bavuma, the difficult bit has been what comes after.

As the graph below shows, he's pretty good at getting to 30; he gets there once every two-and-a-half innings, roughly, which is pretty much the same rate as Aiden Markram's, and a slightly better rate than Dean Elgar's. But in innings where he's reached 30, he only averages 74.10, which is less than Shaun Pollock's average in similar innings.

Batting in similar positions in the batting order, Ashwell Prince didn't get to 30 as frequently as Bavuma did, but when he did, he really cashed in, averaging an astounding 107.59 in those innings.

Duminy ended his career with an average of 32.85, which isn't far off Bavuma's right now, but his issue was entirely different. He averaged 97.18 when he got past 30, but he only reached 30 once every 3.52 innings. What South Africa would give for a batsman with Bavuma's ability to get starts and Duminy's ability to convert them.

It will require plenty of work, but at 29, Bavuma still has time to become that batsman. No one deserves the kind of pressure he deals with each time he marks his guard, but he knows there's only one real way to make it disappear: by making his 30s count.